No player in the history of the banjo has done more to free the instrument from the confines of bluegrass than New York native Béla Fleck. His innovative playing has melded the banjo with pop, classical, and folk; he’s collaborated with Dave Matthews Band, Phish, and fusion legend Chick Corea, among others. His solo work and long-running progressive bluegrass project the Flecktones have earned him Grammy nominations in more categories than any other instrumentalist. Now he’s brought his wide-ranging practice to Symphony Space for a series of live banjo performances that culminate in a roundtable with four other players on October 23. All of them came to the instrument in roundabout, surprising ways.
Fleck received his first banjo at the age of fifteen, his interest in its sound piqued by Appalachian banjo legend Earl Scruggs’s performance of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. “It was an existential crisis for me, being an Upper West Side New York kid learning to play the banjo, because it didn’t make sense to anybody around me,” Fleck says with a laugh. “It didn’t even make sense to me!” As a teenager, he sought the expertise of fellow Tri-Stater Tony Trischka, who had just released an influential solo debut, Bluegrass Light, after years of playing in country music ensembles.
“Béla was pretty unforgettable,” Trischka says. “He was sixteen and could already play bluegrass and fiddle tunes. He was interested in some of the weirder stuff I was doing,” which included introducing Middle Eastern–inspired modes and jazz improvisation to traditional bluegrass. Trischka had begun playing banjo in 1963, quickly becoming accustomed to the mocking cries of “Yee-haw!” that followed him whenever he carried his instrument around New York. He’d been honing his craft for nearly a decade when he took Fleck on as a student. “I would jam out on a traditional tune, and he would come back the next week having learned every note. After a few months, it was obvious that he didn’t need lessons.”
Abigail Washburn, another of the panelists, had a very different introduction. In the late Nineties, she was studying Chinese culture at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I was obsessed with China, and in that angsty, know-it-all kind of phase you get into in college, I felt America, culturally, had so little to show in comparison,” she remembers. Her friends played casually in a bluegrass band, but she had never heard the instrument until, at a party, someone put on a recording of “Shady Grove” by Doc Watson. “When I heard the sound of the banjo as Doc Watson was playing it, I heard something ancient.” Washburn plays an open-backed five-string banjo, down-picking a melody with her fingers while up-picking a fifth, shorter string with her thumb. The technique, called clawhammer, was Watson’s specialty.
The old-time style encapsulates the complicated, difficult history of the instrument itself: the merging of Irish and Scottish immigrant cultures with the American slave trade, whose victims brought banjo-like instruments, played for centuries prior across Africa, onto plantations across the South. Blackface minstrels popularized the five-string banjo in the 1830s; a century later, Scruggs would play his three-finger up-picking style at the Grand Ole Opry, defining the sound of bluegrass. “The way [all these things] fused together is incredibly powerful — that’s the center of what made blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll,” says Washburn.
Five years after first hearing Doc Watson, Washburn ditched plans to study law in China and secured a record deal to instead tour the country as a musician, including a trip along the Silk Road with her band, the Village, in 2011. She’d married Fleck two years earlier, after meeting him in 2003 at a square dance in Nashville. Their three-year-old son, Juno, already plays a toddler-sized banjo.
In addition to Washburn and Trischka, Fleck has invited Don Vappie and Seamus Egan to the roundtable; Vappie’s jazz- and Creole-style banjo speak to his New Orleans roots, while Egan has been a champion of traditional Irish music. In showcasing a mixture of backgrounds and styles, Fleck hopes to foster respect and understanding for an oft-pigeonholed instrument.
Things have already changed a bit, as Trischka points out: The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons have put banjos near the top of the Billboard 200, while indie fans hear the instrument on records by Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine. This innovation is key to the banjo’s survival, says Fleck. “If people are trying to imitate things that have happened in the past, then it’s gonna become a museum piece. The future of it lies in people learning to be themselves on the banjo.”
Banjo Roundtable takes place at Symphony Space on October 23.